Significance of the Anglo-Kuki war 1917-1919 AD
- Part 1 -

Dr. D. Letkhojam Haokip *

98th Anniversary of Anglo-Kuki war at Kuki Inn, Imphal :: 19 December 2015
98th Anniversary of Anglo-Kuki war at Kuki Inn, Imphal on 19 December 2015 :: Pix - DIPR

Introduction: The Kukis who have inhabited the present North East India from the ancient times have shown one of the toughest wars to the British in India and its adjoining areas, particularly in the Myanmar region in the form of the Great Anglo-Kuki war 1917-1919 AD. Col. Shakespeare, who was personally involved in the battlefield, said that, of all the military operations in the North-East India, including the most talked about and dreaded Abor Expedition under General Symond, the Kuki rebellion 1917-1919 AD is the toughest.1

There are writers who claimed the war as a part of the First World War. No doubt, this war was partly the result of the World War I that shook not only the Manipur hills but also some parts of Myanmar, Assam and also the Naga hills. We can rightly call it a part of the Indian struggle for Independence. The entire North east region at that point of time was under the colonial administration, under the Assam province.

The Kuki who were independent from outside interference had encountered the British for almost one and half century from different locations or pockets of north east India including Chittagong Hill tracts. Like many other communities of the world, the Kuki were aware that intrusion of the British in the Kuki territory will replace or affect their traditional socio-political, economy and religious institution.

They were also certain that the influence of the British in the tribal society would erode their political institution especially Chieftainship. Interestingly, in all the wars which had been directed towards the British, the Kuki chiefs initiated their leadership. Before we make an estimate of its significance, we would like to highlight the course of the war and important events that took place in Manipur, the extent and magnitude of the war in brief.

Course of the war: In fact the First World War losses were very heavy on the part of the British. The British, who largely depend on the resources of the colonies, found lots of hurdles in managing and conducting the war. Being established rulers, they had every right to impose and also could ask any one of their colonies for any kind of service whenever the need arose or were called for. India being one of their colonies was also asked to contribute in men and material for conducting the War.2

In this connection, the British Government of India made an appeal to supply labour corps. The North east region of the British India offered to raise five labour corps of two thousand men each. The Naga hill and the Khasi corps were raised and had accordingly left for France. This was followed by the second batch of the Khasi corps, the Lushai Hill corps and also the Garo Hill corps. The Raja of Manipur had contributed a Double Company of Infantry, five ambulances to St John’s Ambulance Red Cross Fund and Rs. 2,81,860 plus Rs.22500 (installments) for purchasing an airplane.

In addition to this, he expressed his desire to send two more labour corps though he could not keep up his commitment due to technical reasons, i.e. the size and frequency of the draft required for the first corps of the Manipur hill men. He was ready to recruit from the valley and command personally if the need arose3.

However, many leaders from the state and the Chief Commissioner, decided not to depute the Maharaja to Mesopotamia, on the ground that many hill men had revolted and military operations against them were going on and also instead asked the king to accept honorary rank of captain. In the mean time many Kuki chiefs started killing mithuns, distributing its flesh, warn their subjects not to go for labor in France. Similar to the Kuki chiefs, some Tangkhul started the same.

The Kuki chiefs who were completely out of touch with the British officer prepared to resist the recruitment policy and at the end of the year 1916, four eastern Kuki chiefs started sending animal flesh to their junior clans or minor chiefs along with an order not to sent labour corps to France.4 The abortion of Higgins’s mission to the Kuki chiefs by Ngulkhup, Chief of Lonpi, had plunged both entities to a War.

Had the British pay respect to the religions of other communities and also ensure security to their family members, from the raids or attacks from their enemy, the Anglo-Kuki war of 1917-1919 AD would have been possibly avoided. At the same time, many hill dwellers were illiterate and lambus, acted as middlemen between the British and the chiefs. There is ample evidence that they, talked in favor of the chiefs, thereby giving room for revolt against to the former. Perhaps, they favored the chiefs for security reasons. By this time however, there was only a single government school in Mao region and a mission school at the present Ukhrul district headquarters.

The causes: The Anglo-Kuki war broke out due to the expansion of colonialism into the territory of the Kuki. Before the Kuki of Manipur has direct confrontation with the British, many other Kuki who lived in Chittagong, Tripura, and the Lushai Hills have encountered the British. Encounter with the British by the Kuki took for the first time in 1777 AD.5

This shows that the Kuki and the British were enmity as soon as the British expanded their unpopular colonialism and ceases sophisticated weapons seize from the Kuki. The Kuki, who kept weapons almost proportionate to all the able men, were forced to surrender or deposit their weapons to the government authority before the outbreak of the war that further widen the enmity between the two.

For second, recruitment of labour corps hurt the sentiments of the Kuki who prided themselves as ‘people who never bowed down before others’. Lieutenant Colonel, H. Cole, the political agent, supporting the view of JC Webster, commented: “I am convinced that the present rebellion is due primarily to the unpopularity of recruiting for the labour corps, and therefore the cost of suppressing the rebellion should be paid from Imperial Revenues.”6 A clear assertion of the priorities can be seen in these statements with regard to the British policies.

Besides, the Kuki religious system was also another big factor. It was the head of the family alone who could worship, the good Lord on his behalf and also on behalf of all his family members during the Hun ceremony that took seven days in the last week of the month of May or first week of June, of the Christian era. Recruiting almost all the able men for labour corps in

other words would mean all the heads of the family. So, sending them to overseas, without certain dates of their return would have surely dismantled the Hun ceremony. Thirdly, the tribal feud sustained by head hunting tradition, or land dispute- dispute over land boundaries between villages and tribes- developed fear psychosis among the Kukis that gave big setback to the idea of recruiting labor corps among the Kuki of Manipur. Besides, the economic pressure was increasingly becoming overwhelming upon the masses of the Kukis.

Important events: At Lonpi Battle that was fought at Chakpi River crossing point, in September 1917, the Kuki warriors and the British have a prolong pitched battle. Here, three British soldiers died and several have been wounded. The British troops numbering 80 marched towards Lonpi to Punish the Kuki but the Kuki attacked them. As stated above Higgins’s mission to convince the chief failed. When Higgins went to Lonpi, with an escort of Fifty Rifles, to study the situation, he found the village deserted. Lonpi village was burnt down on the 17th October, 1917.7

The War between the Kuki and the British was set into motion after these events. Chingakhamba Sanachaobao Singh, who professed to have supernatural powers went to Wakha( Ukha) a Kuki village, called ten Kuki and looted the forest toll station at Ithai on the 19th December, 1917.8 The Kuki planned to attack Imphal on the 22nd December, 1917 certainly causes considerable anxiety among the people of Imphal. Longya battle followed Lonpi and Ithai incidents.

The kuki troops under the leadership of Ngulbul and British, under the command of Captain Montifiere show down another battle in February 1918. Ngulbul was killed while trying to escape from the stocked with his little son on his arm.9 The mid March, 1918, witness another show down at Chassad-Kamjong. In the encounter, several casualties inflicted and Lt.Molesworth was killed and Lt.Kay Mauyatt, who came from the Burma, was seriously wounded.10

The Kuki directed their action towards the British and their supporters and vice-versa. The Kuki chiefs murdered Khopum Chaukidar and in retaliation, the British under the leadership of Cloete consisting of 150 rifles burnt down, eleven villages. Durbar president and his team burnt down two villages between March 5 and 10. On the 18 May, the Kuki raided Pangsang Chingmai, a Chiru village. Twenty one lost their lives and five persons were missing. At Khongakhul, twenty six were killed on the 22 May and thirteen were found missing.

On the 23 May, the Kuki burnt down a suspension bridge built over the Thoubal River. At the Kasom village, thirty-five died after they refused to supply rice and coolies to the rebels. Angered upon the loyalty of the Manipuri Raja, Khutinthang, chief of Jampi village proclaimed himself the Maharaja of Manipur. Collections of guns and terrorizing different villages followed his proclamations. On June 3, 1918, the rebels killed seven Muslims of Kwakta, after receiving reports that the latter had nexus with the British.

They also shot dead twenty persons from the Kharam village and forty were found missing after gun shots. It is believed that some might have succumbed to death after getting wounded. On the 16 June, Khongde, Kuki village chief was shot dead for guiding Hutton on his visit to Sapvomi. The Kuki opened fire at some cultivators of Iringbam villagers on the 18 June.11

to be continued....

* Dr. D. Letkhojam Haokip wrote this article for Imphal Times
The writer is at Assistant Professor, Department of History, Gauhati University
This article was posted on December 21, 2016.

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